If you know me, you know I'm a fervent pet lover. We have
dogs, cats, horses, goats, and are related to someone with a
bearded dragon. I know, viscerally, how pets can feel like family
members. As a result, they can be incredibly important to someone
in the middle of a divorce. I also know, as does anyone who has
befriended an animal, that animals have needs, wants and opinions
of their own. However, the law has been pretty clear that pets are
considered property, like a chair or lamp, during a divorce.
The ownership (homing) of a pet can be a hot-button issue in
high conflict divorce cases. I've had many cases through the
years where pets were at issue. If there are kids, it often makes
sense for the pet to stay with the children. As we come to a more
egalitarian parenting world, where kids are splitting time almost
equally, this decision is not going to be as simple. In cases where
there are no kids or the kids are grown, companionship of the
critters can loom larger. Judges don't seem to like being asked
to make this decision. In fact, they can become quite annoyed if
you ask them to. A way to avoid this is to have the parties agree
to arbitrate the decision of the pet's future.
In cases where spousal abuse was evident, pet ownership is a
little more clear. I was thrilled when in 2012 the Legislature
amended the domestic violence law to allow victims to
retrieve and keep their pets. That was a recognition both
that the pets are important to the victims of domestic violence and
that the pets themselves often are subsidiary victims of the same
It was fascinating to learn that Alaska has just modified their divorce
law to make two changes about the status of pets. Overall, pets
will now be considered more like children than like couches. The
first change is similar to the Massachusetts domestic violence
statute mentioned above. The second change is intriguing. It
mandates that if animals are owned, the court must take "into
consideration the well being of the animals" in both
agreements and litigation.
This is just one state, and obviously not Massachusetts, but
there may well be something similar in the future here. I can see a
lot of folks taking up a career in determining what is in the
animal's best interest.
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Trustees are often granted the power to distribute trust property "in the Trustee’s discretion" for a beneficiary’s "general well-being," "best interests," "comfort," or, most commonly, "health, education, maintenance and support."
"Whereas victims rarely know how to use the law in their favor, the aggressor instinctively deploys the necessary maneuvers. Abusive behavior can be used to find fault in a divorce action. But how can one keep track of guilt by innuendo?"
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